Thursday, 31 March 2011

I'm still fairly sure this is an elaborate April Fool's joke

Credit: Karon Liu

I never trust a trending topic on Twitter, particularly when the first day of April is just a few days away. Indeed, on this very occasion when I was browsing the micro-blogging site, a topic was trending that claimed Jackie Chan was dead. He wasn't.

Just underneath this falsification rested Jennifer Garner's name. Apparently she had been cast as Agatha Christie's pensionable sleuth Miss Marple in a Disney reboot of the series. Pull the other one, I thought.

But here I am, two days later, blogging about this very topic because the story seems to have been picked up by every news agency going and we are facing the very real possibility of a 38-year old American playing Miss Marple. If this is actually an April Fool's joke, it's right up there with the BBC's spaghetti crops.

As someone who has never claimed to be a fan of Miss Marple or even Agatha Christie, I am not one of those people who is at the point of rioting over this news. Any Hollywood re-imagining of something so quintessentially quaint and British was never going to be a good idea. Even a sensible casting decision, Judi Dench for instance, would not convince me that this was going to be a great film. I'm more concerned with what this says about the way Hollywood is interpreting its audience.

The simple truth is that a film centred on an elderly spinster will not shift tickets, no matter how good it is. There have been plenty of successful films featuring older characters, yes, but they have relied on word of mouth and attracting a certain type of cinema goer to be successful. But the industry only really wants the attention of one demographic: the 18-30 year old.

When it comes to mining the classics for their rich reserves of characters and plot, we've seen producers stray from the original many times before. More often than not, this is to bring them "up to date" and make them palatable for a modern audience. Hence, Sherlock Holmes becomes a younger, all-action hero and Othello takes place at an American high school.

Some of these re-imaginings work better than others, but when they do work it is because they have stayed true to the heart and soul of the original piece of literature and framed it in a way that the 18-30 audience can relate to. Think 10 Things I Hate About You putting a modern twist on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. When it doesn't work, the point of the story is missed completely and a character is simply mined to make the film more marketable. I know a lot of people enjoyed Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes but the BBC's Sherlock proved you can bring the character up to date without completely changing him.

Sadly, Miss Marple is in the latter category. A completely original detective story starring Jennifer Garner just wouldn't sell, but by attaching the name of a famous literary character, regardless of how unrecognisable they are from the original, you might make some money.

Perhaps we could remake the Famous Five as a group of sexy college students who solve mysteries with their sassy talking dog, Timmy (not to be confused with Scooby Doo). Justin Bieber could star as Oliver Twist, an orphaned street urchin who becomes an international music sensation.

As someone who is in the 18-30 demographic, I like to think that Hollywood woefully underestimates us. That, if they treated us like adults and gave us some straight-up, faithful adaptations we'd flock to see it. That is what my heart says.

My head says we're getting what we deserve.

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Tuesday, 22 March 2011

So, you want us to change the nationality of our film's bad guys entirely? No Problem.

The people behind the Red Dawn remake really are geniuses. They spotted the potentially flawed logic of making China the evil, invading bad guys of their new film, realising that it doesn't necessarily pay to annoy around a billion potential customers in an increasingly lucrative commercial market. Wise reasoning indeed, the only problem being that they came to this decision after the film had actually been made.

So what to do? Scrap the entire project? $75m down the drain is a lot to lose. How about widespread reshoots? Costly, but the only real way to remove all references to China from the film. Or, you can just get it all in post-production like the Red Dawn producers chose to do.

According to the Los Angeles Times the film is having flags, symbols and dialogue digitally altered to turn the Chinese into North Koreans. As the article mentions nothing of any reshoots, we can only assume that the Chinese and Chinese-American actors in the film will miraculously become North Korean. This is hardly surprising - Hollywood seems to have no qualms about pushing the notion that all Asians look vaguely the same (just like people from the Middle-East).

As this Cracked article points out, Hollywood seems to be running out of reliable bad guys faster than you can say "regime change." It seems that the end of the Cold War was the worse thing to happen to action movie producers, which is ironic as so many of their films were about bringing down the Iron Curtain.

North Korea seems to be the frontrunner to become "the new Russia" so to speak, but I still feel uncomfortable about reducing an entire nation of people crushed under a tyrannical regime to a faceless enemy. The first action film to capitalise on the ongoing conflict in Libya will feel my wrath.

Personally, I have no problem with a fictionalised enemy. If I'm watching a film about people defending their American town from an invading foreign force, I'm not going to believe it any more if they're from North Korea, China or the evil Republic of Villainovia. The explosions and the the bullets are all the same. But for some people, the killing just isn't real if it involves those bad guys they've seen on the news. So North Korea it is.

By the way, I'm calling this now: Red Dawn will be the worst film of 2011.

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Friday, 18 March 2011

On African actors in Hollywood

Djimon Hounsou, from Benin (Photo by fashion photographer Anthony Citrano)
Do a Google search on issues surrounding African actors in Hollywood films, and you'll be met with a flurry of results, almost none of which are focused on actors who are actually from Africa. Unless you were wise enough to make use of quote marks, the issue you will be faced with is the plight of African-American actors. Whilst Hollywood is still not giving enough quality, non-generic roles to African-Americans, very little is being said about the native African actors, who are arguably getting a far poorer deal.

With the exception of Europe and the US itself, Africa is one of the most used landscapes by the movie industry. It's appearing more and more frequently too. Everything from Oscar-bait tales (Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener) to schlocky blockbusters (Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life, Sahara) are making use of the vast continent. That's not to mention the biographical tales of heroic (Invictus) and villainous (The Last King of Scotland) leaders and the many, many films that have used Africa as an anonymous setting for alien or fantasy worlds (Star Wars included).

So surely that would present plenty of work for African actors? Not necessarily.

Though more and more films are being set in Africa, very few of the really juicy roles are going to actors from the continent. It is much easier for Hollywood studios to hire established African-American actors to put on an accent and top-line their movies. Hence we have Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela and Forest Whitaker playing Idi Amin. Perfectly capable though those performances were, it is highly unlikely that an African actor was ever considered for either role because there simply aren't enough of them established in Hollywood.

One notable exception is Djimon Hounsou. For years now, he has been the most established black African actor in Hollywood since his breakthrough with Steven Spielberg's Amistad. Twice nominated for an Oscar, his ethnicity has left him typecast to some extent but it has not stopped him gaining roles in some major films over the last decade.

Hounsou's success is rare, however. There are black African actors out there but very few who were brought up in the continent. The likes of Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor were born to African parents but brought up in Britain, for instance.

Then, of course, there is Omar Sharif, the exception that proves the rule. The Egyptian actor is a true Hollywood legend. His ethnicity never hindered him in what has been a long and varied career.

It must be noted that is not necessarily a colour issue - white African actors, from South Africa or Zimbabwe, are fairly rare in Hollywood but the likes of Sharlto Copley and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron fly the flag.

However, with so many African characters emerging it seems strange that more African actors are not making their name. To any Hollywood producer, I would suggest taking a leaf out of Ridley Scott's book.

For 2005's Kingdom of Heaven, Scott cast little known Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud as Saladin, the general of the Muslim army. Syria may be a part of Asia, but a lesson can be learned for films set in Africa. Massoud was a respected actor in his home country, and though the role was a particularly key one, he was cast for his suitability, rather than his fame. As things turned out he gave the best performance in the film, portraying a wise and charismatic leader with ease.

Massoud's example is clear evidence, if any was needed, that there is plenty of untapped talent in African and Arab countries if someone were just willing to take a risk and cast African and Arab actors to play African and Arab characters. Instead, the roles are going to Don Cheadle, Jennifer Hudson and, perversely, Jake Gyllenhaal. It's time to widen your scope, Hollywood.

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Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Casting Julian Assange

From an unknown activist and journalist, to one of the world's most sought after people, Julian Assange (wrongly) became the focal point for the Wikileaks diplomatic cables scandal. All of a sudden everyone wanted to know more about this awkward-looking man - be it his allegiances, his motivations or, importantly, his private life.

Inevitably, the source of media fascination became the source of Hollywood fascination. The story of Wikileaks was a story that could make money.

I am in little doubt that the planned Julian Assange/Wikileaks project, scheduled for 2013, will be awful. A sensitive story that has already had its main focus (the cables themselves) distorted and skewed to become a media circus around one man will only suffer further when placed in the hands of Hollywood producers. It is also a story that is far from its conclusion - there are still plenty more cables to be leaked and the fate of Assange is yet to be decided.

But enough about all that trivial stuff, there's a movie to be cast.

Step forward Macaulay Culkin. Or Matt Damon. Or maybe even Tilda Swinton.

The Swinton idea is actually beginning to gain legitimate traction. The resemblance between the Oscar-winning actress and the androgynous Australian journalist is uncanny and people seem to be using Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There as precedent (because, apparently, film casting works like the legal system). As good an actress as she is, a piece of stunt casting like that would give the film no hope of being anything other than dramatic exploitation of a serious event, so, fun as it is, let's rule out this particular idea for now.

Now, Culkin. He's been due a comeback for a while now, he's all grown up (30 years old!) and he can sort of act (watch Saved!). But, seriously, Macaulay Culkin enters back into the movie business to play Julian Assange? Slight resemblances apart, this screams stunt casting once again and there's no guarantee that Culkin could pull it off. It's a no.

Damon's a good actor, one of the few leading men who can more-or-less guarantee a box office draw and has that eternal youthfulness that, combined with a good wig, may make him have a passing resemblance to Assange. But why do I get a terrible feeling he'd butcher an Australian accent?

My choice? Guy Pearce. Far too craggy to play Assange, yes. But he's a incredibly solid actor, is an actual Australian, and will give the film a legitimacy that none of the other actors mentioned would. Also, to anyone who think he looks nothing like Assange, go and watch Factory Girl (though not all the way through, it's awful). Guy Pearce, in a blonde wig and playing Andy Warhol, looks more than a little like Assange. Lose the sunglasses and it might work. Not that the film necessarily will, but if we at least cast a decent actor it would be a start.

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